May 3rd, 2010
In what’s only an aside to his main post, Alex reveals his second thoughts about the slow burn revolution of decentralising technology:
I can’t help thinking, looking at a lot of the growing technology of instant urbanism (suitcase GSM base stations, palletised VSATs, Aggreko gensets, Sun Microsystems containerised data centres…) that a lot of this stuff might actually be a sort of negative toolkit of local optimisations.
RepRap isn’t on that list, but it should be part of this as well. All these technologies take something that you’d normally need a huge industrial complex for, scale them down to were they fit on the back of a lorry and make them independent of the infrastructure that their full scale counterparts depend on, therefore enabling sophisticated technology to be plunked down anywhere in the world without requiring anything but electricity. And even that can be provided independently, by using wind or solar power or diesel generators.
Alex calls it “instant urbanism”, but you could also call it cyberpastoralism: get all the tech benefits of living in the city without having to live in the city. There’s always been a strain of that in science fiction, a longing for the death of the city, for technology to advance to the point where a single household (or at best, a village) could provide everything we now need a global infrastructure for through magic replicator tech. In the fifties it was the flying car and fear of the a-bomb that would bring this about (cf. Simak’s City), in the eighties it was cyberspace and telecommuting and now we’re actually seeing a host of technologies maturing or almost maturing that look a lot like real versions of Star Trek replicators.
Of course even thinking about this for a moment makes you realise this independence is phony. You still need factories to manufacture these “suitcase GSM base stations, palletised VSATs, Aggreko gensets, Sun Microsystems containerised data centres” before they can be used and you still need the raw materials before those magickal RepRap machines can do anything, with everything that implies. All that changes is that people who can afford these toys can pretend to be rugged individualists independent from the rest of society, just like they now can pretend to rough it in the countryside in their expensive 4x4s and brand name survival kits.
In the real world the technologies Alex mentions are meant to be used as quick and dirty stop gaps, to work around the lack of a functioning infrastructure until a more permanent solution can be achieved. But when we see the US Army in all seriousness arguing for diesel generators to power Kandahar indefinately, something has gone wrong. Granted, the alternative of building a proper electricity network and getting power from the Kajaki Dam project and protecting both from the “Taliban” is problematic as well. But the choice for diesel is at heart a political one: it means “Afghanistan” has to buy foreign generators, foreign diesel and keeps the country tied to its donors, much more so than if a proper electricification programme is launched. Going the diesel route means Kandahar electricity production is outsourced to whoever wins the army contract — and the first thing you lose when outsourcing is control.